By Gilly Carr
William Alfred Damarell was born on 16 February 1902. As a young man he served in a labour company in the army and was demobilised in 1920. We learn from his occupation registration form that he had an artificial right eye; his family confirms that he lost his eye during a childhood accident.
At the time of the registration of Islanders in October 1940, Damarell was married, although his wife, Winifred, had evacuated with their seven children. He lived at 23 States Houses in Rougeval in St Peter Port and worked at the harbour as a docker. By the time of the additional 1942 registration, he was now working as a gardener and employed by the Organisation Todt.
We are fortunate in having a few sources of information that can be used to build a better picture of what happened to Damarell. The most important of these is his testimony written in 1965 as part of his application for compensation.
William Damarell comes to our attention because, on 13 September 1941, he was convicted by the tribunal of Feldkommandantur 515 to 10 months’ imprisonment for ‘abusing the German army’. In his testimony he elaborates on this episode:
In July 1941 I was walking up Lefebvre Street, St Peter Port, when, on the pavement I was accosted by three German Unteroffiziers. They had expected me, a man older than they, to get off the pavement to make way for them. This I did not do. I stood my ground, as I had every right to do for though they occupied the island it still was ours. One of the Germans became so incensed by my passive-resistant attitude that he swiped out at me with his fist and knocked me to the ground. I got up immediately and did exactly the same to him. Then he went for his revolver, but fortunately one of his colleagues restrained him.
As a result of defending myself against his unprovoked assault, I was arrested by the Feldgendarmerie and confined to the local prison. I was twice taken from there to the Feldkommandantur by three Nazis and grilled before being hauled before a full German Court Martial in what was the Island’s Magistrate’s Court … We were allowed no civilian defence.
Records from Guernsey Prison show that Damarell was held here from 13 to 21 September 1941. His family remember an anecdote that came to them via Damarell’s sister, namely, that Damarell used to take out his false eye and roll it across the exercise yard at the prison to scare the guards.
He testified that he was taken by German ship to Jersey where he was imprisoned, and then later taken to Granville and on to Caen Prison.
Indeed, we next see Damarell in the records for Caen Prison, where he arrived on 1 October 1941. It seems likely, therefore, that he had spent the intervening 9 days in Jersey and was deported from that Island on 30 September 1941.
Damarell described Caen Prison as follows:
In Caen, like the others, I was ill-treated by the Nazis and suffered malnutrition and starvation. Medical attention of a sort was obtainable from a French doctor, but this only if you could pay for it. The conditions in the cells were degrading and insanitary, a tin bucket being the only, communal, means of sanitation. We were locked in our cells for as long as 23 ½ hours a day, practically every day. I learned … that while at Caen the Germans had designated me as a hostage, along with seven others, so that had the people of Guernsey given any great trouble to the Germans, I could have been taken out and shot, as were some people of other nationalities.
[No proof has been found of the hostage-status of Damarell or the other Islanders in the prison, nor of the threat to shoot them, and so this must be understood as an unsubstantiated rumour].
There is an application in Guernsey Archives for a suspension of sentence filed on 12 May 1942 for William Damarell. This was ‘rejected as unfounded.’
According to his Caen prison records, Damarell was due for release on 15 July 1942. In fact, his Caen prison records state that he was liberated that day on the expiry of his sentence and was to return to Guernsey. However, another record shows his name – crossed out in blue pencil – on a transfer list of men from Caen Prison to Fort d’Hauteville Prison, Dijon, dated 15 July 1942. The names of seven men tried by the German court in Jersey were also on this list. Fortunately, Damarell was not sent to Fort d’Hauteville Prison. Instead he returned to Guernsey without incident.
However, because Damarell had been previously convicted, his name was put on the deportation list for 13 February 1943 and he was sent to Laufen Internment Camp along with many other Island men, arriving on 16 February 1943. He was transferred to Ilag XVIII Spittal on 12 September 1944 and returned to Laufen on 20 January 1945. He stayed in this camp until he was freed by the Americans on 4 May 1945. According to Damarell, ‘by devious means’ he made his way back to England via Paris, Dieppe and Newhaven to London and then to Bolton where he joined his wife. The two of them returned to Guernsey on 2 October 1945. Damarell’s nephew later stated that the family story was that Damarell had ‘escaped with an Australian in a fire engine’ from Laufen. Given that there was a time delay between the liberation of the camp and the eventual repatriation of the men, it seems likely that an obviously spirited man like Damarell was not prepared to wait until the military authorities moved them back to the UK. One of Damarell’s co-internees in Laufen, John Webster, noted in his diary for 6 May 1945 that ‘eight of the British internees, tired of waiting, have stolen two cars and made off for England. They hope to reach a French port.’ It seems very likely that Damarell was one of these eight men; however, the cars would not have had enough petrol to get very far.
While we do not know precise details of the ‘devious means’ through which Damarell got back to the UK, we can make an educated guess based on testimonies of others. It seems possible that Damarell and his friend hitched lifts across Europe with various detachments of Allied armies, perhaps sometimes stealing abandoned vehicles which had been dumped when they ran out of fuel. As for the identity of the Australian friend, we are reminded that while Laufen camp comprised mostly British and American men, there were also a number of foreign nationals from across the world who owned British or American passports. It is entirely likely that the Australian was one of these men.
Although William Damarell applied for compensation in the mid-1960s, he was turned down, as were all Islanders who had been imprisoned only in French prisons or internment camps.
The author would like to thank Eric Brett for the background information on Damarell’s family situation and the family myth about Damarell’s journey home from Laufen. The information from Christine Brennan also contributed to anecdotes told here.
William Damarell’s Occupation registration form, Island Archives, Guernsey.
William Damarell’s 1942 registration form, Island Archives, Guernsey.
William Damarell’s charge sheet, copyright Island Archives, Guernsey, ref. CC14-05/78 and 123.
William Damarell’s prison record, Caen Prison, Calvados Archives ref. 1664 w 34.
Compensation claim for Nazi persecution, William, TNA ref. FO 950/2551.
Diary of John Webster, Island Archives, Guernsey, ref. AQ 1518/10.